Tense Talks

Organized labor accuses the state of subtle union busting

To the three public employee unions currently negotiating new state contracts, the state's offers are nothing more than the governor's latest sneer toward organized labor.

Though they've been at the table since the summer, both sides "haven't even begun to address 75 percent of the contract" for Communications Workers of America members, according to Robin Gould, a lead negotiator for CWA. The Fraternal Order of Police and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have similar perspectives.

"We haven't gotten to the major issues yet," David Heshley, executive director of the FOP's state lodge, tells SFR. "I'm not expecting anything to get done [this month], and we've been going since July."

Every three years, each union collectively bargains for new contracts with the state. Altogether, they represent just over 10,000 employees, although CWA political coordinator Miles Conway says past contracts have affected as many as 26,000 state employees.

The three unions' current contracts expire Dec. 31, although an "evergreen" rule allows them to extend beyond the expiration date while negotiations continue.

This time, though, the state's proposals are more far-reaching, prompting lengthy negotiations. They include eliminating requirements for employee breaks, ending employees' abilities to use sick time to care for family members and cutting the unions' power to contest negative performance evaluations, among others.

One proposal calls for eliminating all contract rules that overlap with State Personnel Office rules, Jakob Schiller, an AFSCME spokesman, says. Employee sick time accrual rates, for example, are spelled out both in the current AFSCME contract and Personnel Office rules.

Schiller argues that keeping Personnel Office rules in union-negotiated contracts serves a purpose: They bind the state to enforcing them. He fears that the Personnel Office could change its own rules at any point, putting employee benefits at the agency's mercy.

Schiller also laments the state's proposal to strike the words "fairness" and "equitable" from the new contract.
"They're arguing those are suggestive terms," he tells SFR. "We're saying, 'Who wouldn't want "fair" and "equitable" in any contract?'"

Gould blames a state strategy to "start from scratch," rather than build off of current contracts.

"We were quite shocked," Gould tells SFR. "The proposal from the state eliminated half of the contract."

But Gene Moser, director of the State Personnel Office, says building completely off of past contracts is unfair to taxpayers because the state is subject to giving union employees perks that nonunion employees don't have. Some union employees, he says, are paid to do union work on the state's dime.

The state built off of prior contracts during the last two negotiations, held under former Gov. Bill Richardson in 2006 and 2009. In neither case did the state request givebacks (cuts from previously won benefits). Robert Tinnin, an Albuquerque lawyer who consulted with the state during both contract negotiations, says the decision not to ask for givebacks was a "huge concession to the unions."

Though Gould says her union wasn't expecting anything different this time around, the sluggish economy may be affecting the state's proposals.

"It's probably partly because of the economic situation, and everyone is feeling that impact," Heshley says.

Miles Conway, a political coordinator for CWA, suggests a more sinister motive coming from Management Associates, the Albuquerque firm hired by the state to help negotiate the new contracts.

"They are the go-to union-busting firm in New Mexico," Conway says.

Although Gould says previous, separate negotiations she undertook with Management Associates went well, Schiller says current discussions over four Albuquerque city contracts involving AFSCME and Management Associates are officially in impasse. That means both sides must weigh in on a randomly chosen arbitrator, who in turn picks one side's proposal over the other.

The state's contract with Management Associates, which Moser says it won through a standard bidding process, is worth up to $250,000 over fiscal years 2012 and 2013. The firm, which works jointly with SPO, charges the state $125 an hour for professional labor services and $150 an hour for legal services, public money that comes from gross receipts taxes.

The firm's lawyers refused to discuss the current negotiations with SFR.

Moser estimates his side is meeting with the three unions at least three times a month. Hiring a private contractor to help with negotiations—a point of contention from the union side—is nothing new, he says, dismissing any criticism as the unions "blowing smoke."

Before this year, the state contracted with Tinnin's law firm to negotiate union contracts, although he didn't play a direct role in negotiations for the previous two contracts.

"I was aware of what was going on," Tinnin says about the previous two negotiations. "I was consulted, but was not at the table."

Tinnin's behind-the-scenes role cemented as the relationship between the unions and the state "matured," he says. Before, Gov. Gary Johnson refused to renew the collective bargaining law, which had expired in 1999. In 2003, Richardson and the state Legislature reaffirmed it.

Now, the unions are accusing Martinez of attempting to take away as much power as possible from the unions, albeit in more subtle ways than the governors of Wisconsin and Ohio.

"Martinez doesn't control the [state] Senate or the House, so it's a long shot for her to strip collective bargaining legislatively," Conway says. "But we do bargain with the executive branch."

As protests over collective bargaining rights exploded in Wisconsin in February, Martinez fired every member of the state Public Employee Labor Relations Board, to the detriment of local unions. In April, the state Supreme Court found her firing of two board members unconstitutional.

This summer, CWA Local 7076 President Michelle Lewis was laid off from her position in the Public Education Department. (She was later offered another department job at lower pay.) By fall, Expo New Mexico had cut Maxine Velasquez, the secretary-treasurer of New Mexico Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. Martinez' office has stated that the cuts had nothing to do with employees' roles in organized labor.

Allthough previous negotiations took less time—roughly three to six months—Moser says the current discussions are still far from impasse. In the meantime, though, talks are slow going.

"Each side feels they're correct in their positions," Moser says. "It's tedious right now."

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at]sfreporter.com. Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.